Singing For Memory

Song is a wonderful way to remember information, although some songs are better than others. Songs that help you remember need to have simple tunes, with a lot of repetition -- although a more complex tune can be used if it is very familiar. Most importantly, the words should be closely tied to the tune, so that it provides information about the text, such as line and syllable length. You can read more about this in my article on Music as a mnemonic aid, but here I simply want to mention a few specific songs designed for teaching facts.

I was always impressed by Flanders & Swann’s song describing the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics, and Tom Lehrer’s song of the Periodic Table.

The Thermodynamics song, I think, is much easier to remember than the Periodic Table, but the latter is an interesting demonstration of how much you can improve memorability simply by setting the information to music.

You can find some more “science songs” at http://www.haverford.edu/physics-astro/songs/links.html (this is actually designed for instruction: you can hear some of the songs, there are associated lesson plans, etc).

Drug Discovery Today also has an article recounting the lyrics for various songs, by scientists, celebrating various science subjects, which you can read at www.mnstate.edu/malott/Molecular04/SingaSongofScience.pdf (it's in pdf format).

Songs are in fact such a popular means of learning science facts that in the U.S. there is a Science Songwriters' Association!

Songs are also a great way to learn poems or prose texts. Many well-known texts have been put to music (for example, The Lied and Art Song Texts site has 87 listed for Shakespeare), or you can of course (bearing in mind the need to find a melody that "fits" the text) match texts to music yourself.

Part of this article originally appeared in the August 2004 newsletter.